June 22, 2024

Vitavo Yage

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PTSD affects 300,000 young people in England and Wales, Channel 4 finds | Mental health

4 min read

Thousands of young people are living with post-traumatic stress disorder, with most cases going untreated, a Channel 4 documentary has revealed.

About 311,000 16- to 24-year-olds in England and Wales have PTSD, with most cases linked to personal assault and violence, according to figures estimated for the show.

Low awareness of the symptoms and the difficulty of diagnosing PTSD means that 70% of cases go untreated. If the NHS offered more early intervention therapy, it could save £2.4bn in taxpayer money, according to Channel 4’s analysis of research by King’s College London and Office for National Statistics data.

“When untreated, PTSD – it becomes a chronic condition. It becomes highly disabling. People’s lives can be fundamentally changed,” said Dr Michael Duffy, a psychological trauma specialist at Queen’s University Belfast, who features on the show. He added that it could be more common in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation.

Duffy said that in addition to diagnosis being difficult, people with PTSD faced long waits for treatment. A rapidly growing children’s mental health crisis has resulted in waiting times for access to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) rising to three years in some parts of the UK.

A clip from the Channel 4 documentary Konan: Trapped in Trauma - Untold
A clip from the Channel 4 documentary Konan: Trapped in Trauma – Untold. Photograph: Channel 4

The documentary, which is available to stream, follows the rapper Konan as he receives treatment for PTSD for the first time. He started having symptoms – including flashbacks, anxiety, paranoia, anger, and strong feelings of guilt – more than a decade ago, after gang members searching for him broke into his house, shooting his mother and killing his stepfather.

Speaking to the Guardian, Konan said he believed that a lot of people he knew had PTSD. “They don’t understand how it’s affecting how they move through life now they’re adults. Being aware of it is the first step.”

Through therapy, he has been able to identify the life events that have shaped his behavioural responses, how to put those into perspective, and what his triggers are. He has continued therapy since doing the show, and has been amazed by its impact.

“The therapy has made me open doors that I’ve had closed for a while. It’s made me more emotional – I’ve been taking in things and feeling a lot more. During this whole period, I learned to shut everything out and it made me a bit numb. I wasn’t feeling happy about things I was achieving, but when I sat in therapy sessions [the therapist] told me that because I shut off sadness, I couldn’t take in happiness,” he said.

In the show, Konan speaks to fellow sufferers of trauma, including a friend who has night terrors he alleviates through smoking weed after growing up in a violent neighbourhood, another man who failed to save his friend from drowning, and another whose experience of abuse as a child led him into a difficult adulthood, including being stabbed and self-medicating through drugs.

Duffy said: “We still have a culture which creates the impression that men should be tough guys and strong, and not talk about their emotions. It’s a huge problem.”

Earlier research has found that traumatic early events such as bullying cast a long shadow on a person’s life in terms of reduced earning power and poorer physical health. PTSD in young people is associated with significantly higher rates of attempted suicide, self-harm, not in education, employment or training (Neet) status and juvenile crime.

Trauma is also thought to be on the rise post-pandemic, with the NHS estimating in 2021 that lockdowns would result in 230,000 new cases.

Other figures calculated for the show estimate that 13% of women aged 16-24 have PTSD in England and Wales, higher than the rate for British war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. One woman featured on the show said she had struggled to get a PTSD diagnosis after she experienced abuse at university. Even after securing a diagnosis, she has been on an 18-month waiting list for trauma therapy.

Prof William Yule, an emeritus professor of applied child psychology at King’s College London, said PTSD could occur after scary or life-threatening events, though this included comparatively common experiences, for example a road traffic accident or a mugging.

PTSD could be difficult for families to recognise, he said. “Children often try not to upset their parents and play down their feelings. Parents can underestimate effects on children and hope that the distress will simply go away. Many adults are wary about talking to the child about a horrible event in case the child gets upset whereas talking openly can be helpful.”

Children who were experiencing intrusive memories about a distressing event or avoiding talking about it benefited from early intervention from a psychologist followed by cognitive behavioural therapy, he added.

An NHS England spokesperson said: “NHS mental health services are treating more young people than ever before including through our world-leading talking therapy service which offers early intervention for children and young people suffering from PTSD.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Mental health services will receive an additional £2.3bn a year by 2024, bringing the total expected spend on mental health in 2023/24 in England to £13.6bn.

“This investment means an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded mental health support.”

Untold: Konan – Trapped in Trauma can be streamed on Channel 4 or watched on the C4 YouTube Documentaries page

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